Pleasure Point surfing icon Richard ‘Frosty’ Hesson opens up about being the subject of the soon-to-be-released film, ‘Chasing Mavericks,’ his new book and the importance of enjoying life’s simple pleasures—and enduring its toughest challenges.
It’s a glorious weekday afternoon in late September and an Indian-summer sun blankets the neighborhoods of Pleasure Point with a soft, comforting glow. I have always called this time of year “our time”—that quiet moment after Labor Day when the tourists have bid Santa Cruz adieu and the golden weather arrives, leaving the beaches and waves all to ourselves. Across the bay, the rising peaks of the Santa Lucia Mountains loom dark and majestic, holding the promise of a distant Oz on the horizon, a place for big dreams and grander visions. It is the magical season in Santa Cruz.
A high Pacific tide is slowly receding from the cliffs, and the small bumps will soon give way to some waist-high swells along the surf breaks for which The Point is best known—from Privates to The Hook to Sewer Peak, and a favorite spot of mine when I was in high school, The Dirt Farm, where my buddies and I would hang and laugh and talk about the future while waiting for the next ride. It all brings back a flood of memories. Good days. Good waves. A simpler time.
Richard “Frosty” Hesson and I are walking slowly along East Cliff
Drive, taking it all in, enjoying the conversation, feeling the warmth. The Point is a surfer’s paradise, and a distinctive surf culture emanates from just about every nook and cranny.
The place responds to the rhythm of the tides. And the tides respond to the rhythms of the gods.
“It’s all so good,” Hesson says to me as we stop for a moment above the beach at 38th Avenue. “We are so blessed. What a great life we get to live.” He says it with a hard-won joy and contentment, a depth of feeling that is unusual in this era of digital emotions and Facebook friendships.
Along the way, people come up to Hesson or pass us on their beater bikes, invariably yelling out “Hey, Frosty, how’s it going?” or “What’s up?”
“Smiling,” he says simply. And that’s his mantra. Smiling.
Tall and barrel-chested with Hollywood good looks and blonde-turned-platinum hair (hence the nickname, “Frosty”), Hesson is an iconic figure in Pleasure Point, where he has lived close to the water’s edge for more than a decade, and where he has surfed for nearly half a century. He has been a friend, a father and a husband here, but also a mentor to dozens of young men and women—including Robert “Wingnut” Weaver and Kim Hall—with big-wave dreams.
If Hesson now enjoys a certain celebrity status along the promenade on East Cliff Drive, it’s about to go global in the weeks and months ahead with the international release of Chasing Mavericks, starring Scottish-born Gerard Butler as Hesson. It also stars newcomer Jonny Weston, who, early reports indicate, turns in a sizzling performance as Hesson’s most famous Pleasure Point protégé, the late Jay Moriarity, the legendary big wave rider who first conquered the monster waves off Pillar Point as a teenager and drowned in the Indian Ocean while on a photo shoot for O’Neill’s International in June of 2001, a day shy of his 23rd birthday.
Moriarity’s life and tragic death soon became part of local surfing lore—“Live Like Jay” bumper stickers started turning up in neighborhoods from Half Moon Bay to Pacific Grove—as did his unique and life-defining relationship with Hesson. Moriarity was just a skinny, 12-year-old kid with sparkling blue eyes when he first met Hesson—he hadn’t yet reached adolescence—but by the time he was in his early teens he was seeking the guy in The Point everyone knew as Frosty to help him achieve his dream of becoming a big-wave rider up the coast at Mavericks.
One of the things that everyone involved with the film says is this: “It’s not about surfing.” At first it sounds a little bit like a soft-sell or counter-hype. But just as a film like Field of Dreams is not, ultimately, about baseball, Chasing Mavericks is about something much deeper in the human condition, about pursuing one’s dreams and reaching deep inside oneself. Perhaps, mostly, it’s about relationships, and about the way that individuals treat each other as we make our way in the world.
And the two most significant relationships in Moriarity’s life were those with Hesson and with his girlfriend-turned-wife, Kim, played by Leven Rambin in the film. Chasing Mavericks, says Kim Moriarity, “is not about capturing the biggest wave or experiencing the biggest wipeout. It’s about living each day to the fullest, to your own capacity, and to leave the world a better place. It’s about being true to yourself and treating others well. Hopefully, it will inspire everyone who sees it to follow their heart.”
At the core of the film is the relationship between “Frosty” and “Jay,” the deep friendship and sense of trust they forged through their years together. “His training covered much more than surfing,” Hesson notes. “When I work with someone I am interested in helping build the foundation of a good human being. Who needs just another good athlete or surfer? We are—and should be—so much more.”
During the early 1990s, Hesson set the young Moriarity on a demanding course. He assigned him to write more than 50 short essays on various aspects of surfing and life, followed by revisions, and concluding with lengthy Aristotelian discussions with Hesson in the front seat of his van. It was an intellectual and emotional journey that Moriarity travelled with Hesson, with all its grueling physical manifestations, long before his first paddle out at Mavericks. “I was there to prep, advise and support [Jay], but not make the choices,” says Hesson. “He had to live out those choices himself.”
Ifirst heard of Hesson several years ago when some people were telling me of a near-mythical figure who was coaching young surfers at Pleasure Point. He had not only mentored Moriarity, so the line went, but lots of other young kids, too, many of whom were attending (as Moriarity had done) my alma mater, Soquel High School.
Two critical mentors in my early life—Ron Walters and Tom Curtiss—had been coaches of mine at Soquel High 20 years earlier, and two of my close friends, John Wilson and Stu Walters (Ron’s son) are now coaching there as well. It comforted me to know that there was a new generation of adults showing kids who were struggling through the teenage years how to make their way in the world.
By the time shooting began on Chasing Mavericks last fall (both here and in San Mateo County), the hype around Frosty and Jay had blown off the charts. Another close friend and colleague, Joel Domhoff, was serving as Promotional Extras Coordinator on the set, and although he had invited me to some shoots, I had kept my distance. Crowds and studio film companies did not appeal to me. But Domhoff had nothing but good things to say about Frosty and Kim and indicated that their presence on the set “helped to keep everyone focused and grounded” and that they “reminded everyone that there was something larger at stake here than in your typical Hollywood movie.”
It wasn’t until I was assigned to write a magazine story about Chasing Mavericks earlier this year that I first encountered Hesson, via email. By now I was intrigued by the story and Hesson’s role in it. I had no phone number for him, only an email address, and, as it turned out, he was off-the-grid in Mexico, on a surfing expedition. By chance, Hesson briefly found his way into a small coastal village and checked his email.
When I discovered that I had a return message from “Frosty,” I really had no idea what to expect. My initial communication with him had been really something of a shot in the dark. What I received back was a deeply thought-out reflection on the bigger processes involved in the making of the film. There was no ego involved, just his profound, introductory insights into the larger forces at work in the Cosmos. Hesson concluded his initial missive to me with the simple valediction: “Enjoy.”
A short time later, another email concluded with the same parting affirmation. My 97-year-old mother had been going through a tough health challenge at the time—she soon had a rather remarkable recovery—but Hesson’s one-word sign-off had been an important reminder, even a bit of an admonition, to find the beauty and, if possible, the joy in what was a challenging and difficult process.
By the time of our walk through Pleasure Point—dozens of emails and several conversations later—I had just completed reading an advanced copy of Hesson’s moving memoir, “Making Mavericks,” written superbly with Ian Spiegelman and which will be published next week by the innovative Zola Books. It is a poignant tale with a far larger narrative arc than the film, beginning with Hesson’s birth in San Francisco in 1950 and continuing through the death of Moriarity in 2001.
After reading his book, I realized that Hesson and I had a few more things in common than our life geography and love of the sea. He had experienced a tough, baby boom childhood—his father was an alcoholic, his mother besieged by poor health—and within a six month period shortly after graduating from high school, his mother, father and grandfather all died, his mother from suicide, his father from “a broken heart.”
The book chronicles Hesson’s life’s journey—his competitive swimming and water polo career, a broken first marriage and early fatherhood, his work in the construction trades, the tragic death of his second wife Brenda, the trials of raising his children as a single father and then falling in love with his present wife, Robin “Zeuf” Janiszeufski-Hesson, an accomplished surfer, nurse and well-known cancer warrior in her own right. He also details his personal discovery of—and his “obsession” with—the mountainous waves at Mavericks and his powerful relationship with Moriarity. It all makes for a splendid, compelling read.
Early on in the book, Hesson recounts a childhood experience of visiting the famed Sutro Baths in San Francisco. His parents wanted him to stay in the shallow end of the magnificent swimming complex, where it was safe and presented the young Hesson with no challenges. He would have none of it. “There was just something about that deep end,” he writes. “The shallow end was little, for little kids. But the deep end, it was darker, it was bigger—it was there.”
Hesson spends the rest of his life living in the “deep end,” both literally and figuratively, gathering wisdom along the way. At the end of each episode, he draws a series of life lessons—aphorisms, or affirmations, really—that shape and guide his life, such as:
To be successful, you cannot let yourself be tainted by other people’s fears.
If people didn’t pass along what they’ve learned, we would never progress.
Potential doesn’t mean much if you don’t put in the mental and physical work that is required to fulfill it.
If you’re having a bad day, catch a wave.
Either you are who you live to be, or you are not.
And in the end he writes simply: Live Like Jay.
One of the figures in Hesson’s book—and also in the film—is Bob Pearson, another Santa Cruz surf legend (he was ranked among the top surfers in the world in the 1970s) who is also the founder of the wildly successful Pearson Arrow Surfboards.
Pearson and Hesson grew up together in the East Bay, first meeting in high school, as Pearson recalls, and then served as lifeguards and played on the same water polo team in junior college. Pearson, who would later play A-grade water polo in Australia, recalls that Hesson was a “phenomenal” goalie, “the best I’ve ever seen.” Hesson, he says, “completely handled the cage, he owned it, but, more importantly, he kept narrating the game in that deep voice of his. We always knew where the ball was, which is what a good goalie does.”
They have maintained a close friendship throughout the years—surfing and traveling together—but also sharing a similar outlook on life. Pearson, who describes Hesson as “a hard charger,” says that even at a young age Hesson was “thoughtful, aware, respectful and reflective.”
Pearson jokes that often when they were out surfing together, he would look over and see Hesson helping someone in the water. “He was always helping people, taking care of people,” Pearson recalls. “He was about trying to make sure that everyone came away from their experience with a good time. Frosty was helping someone and I’d go and catch my next wave. He was—and is—a great guy to surf with.”
Pearson—who made 178 surfboards for Chasing Mavericks and served as a consultant throughout the film—also had a close relationship with Moriarity. Hesson had suggested this “young kid” should be on the Pearson Arrow surf team and brought Moriarity over to the factory.
“One afternoon Jay and Frosty came in to discuss the shaping and design of Jay’s boards,” Pearson recalls. Hesson had instilled in his young student the idea of “dialing himself into his board,” of knowing “what worked for him and not anyone else.”
He emphasizes that both his—and Hesson’s—relationship with Moriarity was that of a “friendship,” as opposed to a teacher and student. “Jay learned from Frosty, but Frosty also learned from Jay,” he says. “Jay taught people how to live. We all learned from Jay. Sure, Frosty made Jay get serious about surfing Mavericks—that was serious business and Frosty was serious about it—and he made Jay do his homework. But we all enjoyed each other. That was the bottom line. Age didn’t exist.”
Pearson says that he and Hesson can sit down in his factory and discuss surfboard design for hours. “Frosty loves to engage in practical, analytical discussions,” says Pearson, who is considered one of the master surfboard shapers in the world. “He loves to find solutions, to figure things out. I think we once had a discussion that lasted eight hours. Neither of us noticed the time.”
During our conversation, Pearson kept returning to the idea of Hesson being a thoughtful, helpful person. “That’s my good buddy, he’s just a helpful guy with a big heart,” Pearson chuckles. “Damn it, he’s just a good guy.”
That feeling is echoed by another longtime friend of Hesson’s, Bob Barbour, the internationally acclaimed surf photographer—his immortal “Iron Cross” photo of Moriarity’s horrific wipeout at Mavericks in December of 1995 helped propel the legend—who has also known Hesson for the better part of four decades.
“He’s a stand-up, honorable guy,” says Barbour. “Frosty is solid as a rock. He’s not the dark character that Gerry [Butler] plays in the film. He’s really smart. Insightful. A unique sense of humor. Guys that know themselves as well as Frosty does are pretty rare.”
Like Pearson, Barbour says that “Frosty and Jay were friends first—although Frosty was clearly Jay’s mentor, too. I used to see them hanging out at The Point. They were talking story all the time. But a lot of that was private; I wasn’t privy to it all. Frosty cared a lot about Jay as a person and was concerned in an intelligent way. They had a rare and unique friendship. Frosty is an awesome guy.”
Back at Hesson’s home—a delightful Pleasure Point bungalow that he shares with Zeuf—I notice a series of painted rocks with single words on them—“Kindness,” “Dream,” “Longevity”—all words to live by.
There is also a trio of Laughing Buddha statues prominently situated throughout his yard. Based on a real-life Chinese monk—Budai—who wandered the world in poverty (but with a good and loving character), the Laughing Buddha is a symbol of happiness and the wisdom of contentment in Asian cultures.
What strikes me about Hesson is that through all of life’s hardships—all of the grief and pain and “being hit,” as he puts it—he has kept his head above water, even in the deep part of the pool. He has always found a way to give of himself, not only to those close to him, but to the world at large. And through it all, he has maintained his balance and his sense of humor. He is smiling, always smiling—a modern day version of Budai.
The word “Buddha,” I mention at one point, means “one who is awake.”
Hesson smiles. “I like that,” he says. “I was raised a Southern Baptist. I just couldn’t do the deal—so I’ve embraced a form of universal spirituality.”
At some point in the discussion, I raise the issue with Hesson of Moriarity’s death. It’s an issue that I had avoided previously, but he had alluded to it in a discussion about religion. Tears well up in his eyes. There is a passage in his memoir when he returns home from a camping trip in Big Sur with his children, only to discover that his son-like friend, Jay, had died half way around the world. He uttered the words, “I hurt,” and cupped his hands over his heart. He was devastated.
There have been whisperings by some—I heard it in a discussion recently—that Moriarity had been “reckless” when he drowned in the Indian Ocean more than a decade ago. “The Jaybird was someone who pushed the limits,” Hesson says softly. “He wanted to do something that was never done before. He did things so that he could get better …”
There is a pause. “He was challenging himself,” Hesson affirms. “I never questioned his decision.” Hesson has clearly come to terms with his young friend’s death—even if the emotions remain close to the surface.
We were quiet for moment—a very comfortable silence. I was thinking about the big global wave that was about to hit Hesson with the release of the film and the book. I sensed very surely that, just like the young James Michael Moriarity, he would be ready for the ride of his life. “All of this has been beyond surreal,” he wrote in one of his first emails to me. “I expect the next several months to be unexplainable and then my life to return to being with family and friends.”
There we were, two old frosty-haired dogs sitting in the Pleasure Point sun, and for all our scars, the laughing gods of the universe were smiling down on us. I got up to leave. We hugged, shook hands, said our good-byes.
“Enjoy,” Frosty said as I turned into the street. I didn’t look back. Once again, it was a good reminder. n
Excerpted from “Santa Cruz is in the Heart, Volume II,” to be published next year by the Capitola Book Company. Copyright 2012 by Geoffrey Dunn.
Chasing Mavericks hits movie theaters Oct. 26. The film, which was shot locally, stars Gerard Butler (left), filling Hesson’s shoes, and newcomer Jonny Weston (right), who morphs into Moriarity. The film also stars Scott Eastwood, son of actor-director Clint Eastwood.